One of the most frequent questions I get from parents is “How do I get my children to listen to me?” And many of them are surprised when I tell them they are asking the wrong question.
What you are really wanting from your child is not better listening skills, but improved cooperation. You don’t want to have to ask them the same thing 47 times. You’re tired of feeling ignored. You wonder if yelling is the only way you will ever get your child to do what you ask. It’s frustrating.
It’s also developmentally appropriate.
And much of our frustration comes not from our child’s behaviour, but from our own expectations and beliefs around our child’s behaviour. Your child is just being a child. They’re not intentionally ignoring or defying you. Their brains are simply not built for immediate compliance or obedience.
So let’s find out why: Here are 3 reasons why your child is having trouble cooperating with you and following your instructions. Plus some strategies that might help!
1. They don’t have the same priorities as you
Children are not mini-adults. They are whole, individual human beings with their own wants, needs, goals, and interests. They will never share your adult priorities. Brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, and doing their homework is never going to be as important to them as it is to you. Nor should it be.
Children want to play and explore. This is how they learn. They live in the moment and they do what makes them feel good and happy. This is developmentally appropriate. It’s absolutely what we hope for our children – after all, we never want them to be burdened with adult worries and responsibilities.
Once you can truly accept that they will never share your priorities and that it is ok for them to have their own agenda, your stress levels will begin to go down (and so will theirs).
Now, I hear you saying, “But, they still have to brush their teeth!” And you’re right of course. They will need to do things they don’t want to do sometimes. As the adult in the relationship, it’s your job as the adult in the relationship, to find a way to motivate your kids to get these jobs done. And no, I’m not talking about yelling, pleading, bribing, or threatening children into compliance. You simply need to speak their language.
The solution: Make it fun!
What is the language of children? Play of course!
Before you begin barking orders at your child from across the room, consider whether you can make the activity fun or playful in some way. Here are some ideas you can try:
- Have a race against each other to see who can get there faster or finish their job the quickest
- Set a timer and see if you can pack everything away before it goes off
- Play a clean-up song (and maybe dance while it plays!)
- Sing a funny song about your task (the sillier the better!)
- Role play. Who is your child’s favourite character? How would they clean up, or brush their teeth, or put their pyjamas on?
- Play a guessing game. How many toys do you think are on the floor? Let’s count them as we throw them into the toy box!
- Make it a continuation of your child’s play. Were they pretending to be a dinosaur? Let them stomp and roar to the bathroom to clean their dirty dinosaur tummy! Were they building with blocks? Maybe they can keep building in the bath. Were they reading a book? You can read it to them while they get dressed.
Whatever you try here, the key is to be enthusiastic, follow your child’s interests, and connect with them where they are at. When we shift our focus from compliance to connection, everyone feels better, and things are more likely to get done too!
2. They’re focused on something else
Here’s a question for you: When you’re really engrossed in an activity or doing something you love, if someone asks you to do something for them, do you immediately jump into action? Or do you ask them to wait while you finish what you’re doing?
My guess is you ask them to wait a moment.
You expect the other person to be respectful of your time. You believe it’s reasonable to ask the other person to wait until you complete your task. Because your time is valuable and their needs are not more important than yours. Right?
So why do we expect immediate compliance from our children when they are already immersed in an activity?
Your child’s time is just as valuable as yours. Expecting immediate obedience when we ask children to do something sends a message that they should put their needs last. That our needs are more important than theirs. It’s also not reasonable given the way their brains work.
The solution: Support them with transitions
Your child’s brain is not yet fully developed. Switching tasks quickly requires a level of mental flexibility that most young children simply don’t possess yet. They will likely need support to transition between activities. Here’s how:
- Consider whether the task really needs to be done right now. Can it wait until they finish what they’re doing?
- Tell them what to expect before they start their activity. If it’s a planned activity, be clear from the start how long they will have. Consider a timer or a visual countdown of some sort, especially for kids who can’t tell time yet.
- Give them some warnings that they will need to pack away/leave/stop their activity soon. I like to give 10 minute, 5 minute and 2 minute warnings to my kids so they have plenty of time to prepare for the end of the activity.
- Play or sing a transition song so they know they have until the song ends to be ready for the next activity
- Connect with your child before you give instructions. Get down to their eye level, use their name, touch their arm or shoulder, and ensure you have their full attention before you give instructions.
Young children need to be supported to learn the skills they need for cooperation. Simply asking them to do something is rarely sufficient. Rather than thinking about how to “get” them to do what you want, try asking yourself how you can support them to be successful. This will always lead to better outcomes for both of you.
3. They don’t feel like they have any agency
No one likes to be controlled or bossed around. Feeling powerless is no fun for adults OR children. And in fact, for young children, gaining a sense of autonomy and independence and understanding that they can impact the world around them is an essential part of their social and emotional development. When we subscribe to the traditional parenting belief that children should simply do what we say when we say it – on account of us being bigger and stronger than they are – we take away a child’s power. We deny their developmental need to feel in control and have a sense of agency over their life.
This can lead to stress for our children and ultimately, it ends with power struggles, defiance, and even aggression as children seek to get this essential need met. Why would they want to comply with our requests if they do not feel heard, respected, or appreciated? We adults certainly don’t want to cooperate with people who we feel treat us unfairly or unkindly, right?
The solution: Offer choices
And no, I don’t mean you should ask them if they want to follow your instructions. In my house, “Do you want to clean your room?” would be met with a hard no every time. I’m guessing it would be the same in yours.
What I mean, is that we should allow our children to make developmentally appropriate choices. Choices that are in line with our goals and values, but are also respectful and take into account the needs and desires of our children.
- Give your child choices that end in the desired outcome eg The question, “Do you want a bath before or after dinner?” still ends in them having a bath. “Do you want a bath tonight?” may not.
- Ensure your choices are developmentally appropriate. Allowing your 3-year-old to choose what to wear in the morning is developmentally appropriate. Allowing them to choose what you eat for dinner every night is probably not.
- Let go of trying to control things that you have no control over. For example, you can choose what to feed your child, but you cannot control how much of that food they eat. Allow them to have autonomy over their body as much as possible.
- Your child does not get a choice when it comes to their safety. This is always your responsibility.
Sometimes we can’t give children choices. That’s ok. In fact, too many choices can be overwhelming for children. They still need to feel confident in our ability to lead and guide them. This is what keeps them feeling safe and secure. So sometimes, we simply need to be as respectful as we can while we set boundaries we know our children will be unhappy with. Offering choices is about fostering independence and giving children a sense of power when it is appropriate to do so. It’s not about keeping them happy all the time.
It’s always about connection
Ultimately, gaining cooperation from our children requires a mindset shift for many of us. We need to stop asking the question: “How do I get my child to listen” and instead, ask ourselves what our child needs from us in order to be successful. When we start to consider how we can work together, how we can support our child, and how we can connect with our child, this is when real cooperation happens. Not compliance for the sake of compliance, but real, connection building, relationship strengthening, teamwork. Teamwork teaches our children important lessons and communicates to them that we love and respect them no matter what.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.